NASCAR picks pack: Richmond a great track for Kyle Busch to wrap up a wild card

by | Special to

WHEN: Sept. 8, 2012 | GREEN: Approximately 7:44 p.m. ET

WHERE: Richmond International Raceway

TRACK DESCRIPTION: .75-mile short track

BROADCAST: ABC | RACE LENGTH: 400 laps, 300 miles

The lowdown

Richmond is a great venue for the final regular-season race. It is a short track that behaves like an unrestricted, intermediate speedway to combine the best of two worlds. The corners are sweeping enough to allow for side-by-side racing, but 43 cars packed into the tight confines of three-quarter mile stadium is a recipe for excitement. Drivers can control their own fate, but there is also a hint of danger.

It is possible to string long streaks of top 10s together on this course, but dark horses can also gallop alongside the favorites. This week, there will be a perfect balance of marquee drivers and sleepers in the lead pack, but the cameras will spend the majority of the time focusing on two drivers just outside the top 10 in points.

Last week, Jeff Gordon told reporters that he had gotten too soft because he chose to try and pass Denny Hamlin cleanly on the final lap instead of running into the back of the No. 11 Toyota to move it out of his way. Once he had a moment to reflect on his circumstances, it is highly likely that he realized he was too easy on himself. That split second decision will likely be the difference between challenging for the Cup and being just another also-ran during the final 10 races, because since 2009 no one has been consistently better than Kyle Busch at Richmond and it will be virtually impossible to overtake the No. 18 in the standings.

The final wild-card slot is effectively down to Busch and Gordon. Joey Logano, Ryan Newman and Marcos Ambrose could conceivably win and steal the second slot -- but they won't -- and winning is not going to be nearly as important to anyone else in the field except the No. 18 and 24 teams. One of these drivers will be talked about every week for the remainder of the season -- and one will not -- but for this one final weekend, the spotlight will shine brightly on both.

10 best drivers at Richmond

Over the past six races at Richmond, these drivers have the best average finish.

1. Kyle Busch
Last six races average finish at Richmond: 2.67 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Richmond: 4.73 in 15 attempts

NASCAR is prone to hyperbole and the word perfect gets tossed around with reckless abandon, but if it ever fits a driver on a given track, it's Busch at Richmond. He began his career on this track with a perfect five-race streak of top fives. He failed to win, but finished second in back-to-back races in 2006/2007 and then added another runner-up finish in 2008. His first victory came in 2009 and Busch has won every spring race since then. He hasn't been all that bad in the fall either with a worst result of sixth in his last seven attempts. To say that there is no better place for Busch's final regular season race en route to a playoff berth would be a gross understatement and one has to wonder if NASCAR is even printing up a Chase banner with anyone else's name on it.

2. Denny Hamlin
Last six races average finish at Richmond: 4.67 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Richmond: 7.31 in 13 attempts

Bristol and Atlanta would seem to be unlikely spots for Hamlin to post back-to-back victories. His average finish of 14.8 on the high-banked short track and 16.2 of the "cookie-cutter" place those venues well down the list of his favorite tracks, but he not only won the Irwin Tools Night Race and AdvoCare 500, he had cars capable of dominating throughout those events. Keeping that streak alive should be much simpler than starting it in the first place because Richmond is one of his best tracks. With an average finish of 7.3, this ranks third among courses where he has started more than two Cup races and that is partly attributable to winning back-to-back fall races in 2009 and 2010.

3. Carl Edwards
Last six races average finish at Richmond: 7.83 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Richmond: 14.81 in 16 attempts

A fuel mileage gamble at Bristol and a blown engine at Atlanta in the last two weeks have taken all the drama out of Edwards' bid to make the Chase. It is still mathematically possible that he could leapfrog Busch and Gordon so that a single victory -- if he could achieve it at Richmond -- would put him high enough in the standings for a tiebreaker, but he is not holding his breath. Edwards has been consistently strong on this short track during the last three years, but he has never won a Richmond race. He came close last fall with a runner-up finish and he has two other fifth-place results since 2010, but those are his only top fives in a 160-race career.

4. Kevin Harvick
Last six races average finish at Richmond: 8.83 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Richmond: 11.78 in 23 attempts

Harvick cannot be ignored when one is handicapping driver's odds of winning the Federated Auto Parts 400. After suffering through 11 straight weeks without a top-five finish this season, he showed the first signs of strength since June at Atlanta and in the middle stages of the AdvoCare 500, it appeared to be his race to lose. He slipped to fifth in the final rundown, but there is even more reason for his fans to be optimistic this week because he won last year's edition of this race at Richmond. Everyone remembers how Tony Stewart kicked his team into high gear just in time to make a charge for the 2011 championship and this season Harvick wants to be the hero of his own fairy tale.

5. Clint Bowyer
Last six races average finish at Richmond: 9.83 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Richmond: 10.23 in 13 attempts

At this stage of the season, momentum is more important than a driver's track record and last week was a bad time for Bowyer to struggle. An electrical gremlin forced the team to thrash for a repair and they lost several laps in the process while Harvick, and later, Hamlin were marching through the field like General William Tecumseh Sherman on his way to the coast. Fortunately, Bowyer has a mostly strong record at Richmond. He won the spring Crown Royal 400 and while he has not yet been able to back that up with another victory, he has four results of sixth or seventh in his last six attempts. Right now, he needs a solid run to erase the memory of Atlanta and it is a fair bet that he will accomplish that on Saturday night.

6. Jimmie Johnson
Last six races average finish at Richmond: 11.50 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Richmond: 16.67 in 21 attempts

Johnson proved he is human after all when he drove across the nose of the No. 22 last week and wrecked. For a while, he was the perfect Richmond racer with three wins in the space of four races in 2007 and 2008, but the single race that he failed to win in that span of time was attributable to another accident that caused him to lose 10 laps to the leaders. In recent seasons, he has been good but rarely great at Richmond. His last six efforts are marred by only one result worse than 11th when he suffered crash damage once again in this race last year. In that same span of time, he has earned only one top five on this short track.

7. Ryan Newman
Last six races average finish at Richmond: 12.00 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Richmond: 11.81 in 21 attempts

Newman has not won at Richmond since 2003 when he scored his first and so far only victory. In the 17 races that followed, he has only scored two more top fives, but he cannot be discounted for a strong run. He has a lot on the line this week and can only clinch a berth in the playoffs if he wins, which Pete Pistone outlined in an article earlier this week. While it is highly unlikely that he will win, shooting for the stars often allows a driver to land on the moon and a top-10 finish is in the cards unless he runs out of gas in the closing laps or gets swept into a third consecutive accident.

8. Tony Stewart
Last six races average finish at Richmond: 12.50 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Richmond: 10.59 in 27 attempts

From 2007 through 2009, Stewart posted five consecutive top 10s with three of those efforts ending in second-place results. One of those runner-up finishes came in his first Richmond attempt in his own car, but he slipped down the order immediately following that race. His next three efforts on this track ended outside the top 15, and his next two races produced top 10s, but it was not until this spring that he finished in the top five once more. Given all the disappointments he has suffered in the past four weeks, it is hard to imagine that he will battle for the win, but he will probably be satisfied with an incident-free race.

9. Mark Martin
Last six races average finish at Richmond: 13.50 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Richmond: 12.11 in 53 attempts

No one talked about Martin last week until the final laps and then it was only an offhand mention that he was about to finish in the top 10. He has the same potential this week to race in the middle of the pack most of the evening only to charge to the front when the checkered flag is about to wave because he has steadily improved during his last three Richmond attempts. Martin finished 14th last spring, improved to 10th in the fall and was eighth this spring. He is capable of finishing fifth or better this week because he swept the top five in 2008 and 2009, but to replicate that, he will need a little bit of strategy and a large dose of speed.

10. Jeff Gordon
Last six races average finish at Richmond: 13.67 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Richmond: 14.69 in 39 attempts

The concept of bringing a knife to a gunfight pops into mind when considering Gordon's chances of beating Busch for the final wild-card spot. The No. 24 team will put in a valiant effort, will run well and lead laps, but ultimately Gordon is going to finish behind Busch in the final rundown and that is going to cost him a Chase berth for the only the second time in the history of this format. His fans can take a little consolation in the fact that he will certainly run better this weekend than he did in 2005 when he entered the Chevy Rock & Roll 400 with a chance to get into the playoffs but lost two laps to the leaders because of crash damage.


15. Matt Kenseth
Last six races average finish at Richmond: 17.83 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Richmond: 17.00 in 25 attempts

Kenseth has an uphill battle this week because it has been more than half a decade since he last finished in the top 10 at Richmond. The year was 2007 and he finished 10th in a rare daytime edition of the Crown Royal 400. But since then he has averaged a result of 21st. That is almost exactly where he finished both races last year, and while he improved to 11th this spring, he is hardly recommended as a potential frontrunner. The biggest thing he has in his favor is that the announcement that he will move to Joe Gibbs Racing is finally official. But since that was one of the worst-kept secrets in the garage area, he is not likely to get much of a bump from the revelation.

19. Greg Biffle
Last six races average finish at Richmond: 18.83 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Richmond: 16.70 in 20 attempts

Biffle has been less than spectacular on the NASCAR schedule since his victory at Michigan. A 19th-place finish in Bristol and 15th last week at Atlanta came on the heels of another 15th-place result three weeks previous and he can ill afford to struggle this week if he wants to enter the playoffs with any momentum whatsoever. Richmond is going to be another challenge because Biffle has not scored a top 10 in his most recent 11 starts there. He came relatively close last year with a pair of top 15s, but he really needs a little more spring in his step before the points get reset for the Chase contenders next week at Chicagoland.

21. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Last six races average finish at Richmond: 20.67 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Richmond: 13.92 in 26 attempts

Earnhardt won at Richmond in his rookie season and with a sweep of the top 15 in his first five starts, it appeared this would be a great track for him. He posted two more victories along the way, but since winning his most recent race in 2006, he has fallen well off the pace. In his last 12 starts, he has posted only two more top fives and averaged a finish of 19th. With the way he has been driving this year that might not make much of a difference at Richmond. He surged into the top 10 at Atlanta late in the race after struggling most of the afternoon and one of his two strong runs on this track came this spring, which should give his fans some hope entering the weekend.

21. Brad Keselowski
Last six races average finish at Richmond: 20.67 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Richmond: 20.67 in 6 attempts

Richmond is another track on which Keselowski is re-writing his personal record book. He failed to crack the top 10 in his first five starts on this short track and only managed to finish ninth this spring, but he has been consistent nonetheless. In six starts there, he failed to crack the top 15 only twice and both of those poor finishes came as a result of incidents. He blew an engine in his first attempt with James Finch and suffered crash damage last spring, but he has completed all but one of the remaining laps he attempted on this track.

26. Martin Truex Jr.
Last six races average finish at Richmond: 25.00 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Richmond: 24.38 in 13 attempts

Truex will be a big test of the relative importance of current momentum compared to track record. He has been one of the hottest drivers on the circuit during the last two months with a streak of seven consecutive races in which he finished 11th or better. The other side of the equation is a generally modest Richmond record where he has only one top 10 in his last seven attempts; the remainder of those races ended in disappointing results of 22nd or worse. Momentum should prevail this week, but Truex will count this as a moral victory if he can finish in the top 15 in the Federated Auto Parts 400.

All Drivers: Last six races at Richmond
DriverAvg. finish (attempts)DriverAvg. finish (attempts)
1. Kyle Busch2.67 (6)21. Dale Earnhardt Jr.20.67 (6)
2. Denny Hamlin4.67 (6)21. Brad Keselowski20.67 (6)
3. Carl Edwards 7.83 (6)23. Casey Mears 23.83 (6)
4. Kevin Harvick8.83 (6)24. David Reutimann24.00 (6)
5. Clint Bowyer9.83 (6)24. Sam Hornish Jr.24.00 (3)
6. Jimmie Johnson11.50 (6)26. Martin Truex Jr.25.00 (6)
7. Ryan Newman12.00 (6)27. Regan Smith26.17 (6)
8. Tony Stewart12.50 (6)28. Bobby Labonte27.33 (6)
9. Mark Martin13.50 (6)29. Paul Menard27.50 (6)
10. Jeff Gordon13.67 (6)30. Landon Cassill29.00 (4)
11. Juan Pablo Montoya14.67 (6)31. Stephen Leicht29.50 (2)
12. Kurt Busch15.50 (6)32. Dave Blaney30.00 (6)
13. Marcos Ambrose17.00 (6)32. David Gilliland30.00 (6)
14. Joey Logano17.33 (6)34. Reed Sorenson30.33 (3)
15. Matt Kenseth17.83 (6)35. Travis Kvapil 31.40 (5)
16. Kasey Kahne 18.00 (6)36. David Stremme33.20 (5)
17. Jamie McMurray 18.17 (6)37. Mike Bliss40.00 (5)
18. Jeff Burton18.50 (6)38. Joe Nemechek40.67 (6)
19. Greg Biffle18.83 (6)39. Michael McDowell41.33 (6)
20. David Ragan20.00 (6)40. JJ Yeley43.33 (3)

Caution to the wind

Most caution flags: 15 (2011 Wonderful Pistachios 400, 2009 Crown Royal Russ Friedman 400, 2003 Pontiac Excitement 400)

Fewest caution flags: 3 (2010 Air Guard 400, 1997 Exide Batteries NASCAR 400, 1997 Pontiac Excitement 400, 1993 Pontiac Excitement 400, 1992 Miller Genuine Draft 400)

Average number of caution flags per race: 8.8

Final Caution, last five races:
April 2012: Lap 388 of 400 - Debris (of five total cautions, three were for debris, one was a competition caution).
September 2011: Lap 385 of 400 - Spin on frontstretch (Paul Menard).
April 2011: Lap 302 of 400 - 9-car accident on backstretch (David Reutimann, Jamie McMurray, Mark Martin, Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch, Jeff Gordon, Paul Menard Clint Bowyer, and David Gilliland).
September 2010: Lap 227 of 400 - Rain.
May 2010: Lap 390 of 400 - 1-car accident on backstretch (Sam Hornish Jr.).

Most caution laps: 103 (2002 Pontiac Excitement 400)

Fewest caution laps: 12 (1997 Pontiac Excitement 400)

Average number of caution laps per race: 53.0

All stats for Richmond are for the current configuration as a 0.75-mile paved short track only.

Leading the way

Most leaders: 19 (2004 Chevy American Revolution 400)

Fewest leaders: 4 (2009 Chevy Rock & Roll 400, 2008 Crown Royal Dan Lowry 400, 1992 Pontiac Excitement 400)

Average number of leaders: 8.1

Most lead changes: 25 (1996 Pontiac Excitement 400, 1991 Pontiac Excitement 400)

Fewest lead changes: 4 (2008 Crown Royal Dan Lowry 400)

Average number of lead changes: 15.7

Victory Lane

Last five winners at Richmond (starting position):
April 2012: Kyle Busch (5th)
September 2011: Kevin Harvick (7th)
April 2011: Kyle Busch (20th)
September 2010: Denny Hamlin (14th)
May 2010: Kyle Busch (1st)
September 2009: Denny Hamlin (3rd)

Worst starting position for race winner: 31st - Clint Bowyer (May 2008)

A race at Richmond has been won by the pole sitter 5 times and from the front row 9 times in 48 races.

Active winners at Richmond

Kyle Busch (4)
Tony Stewart (3)
Jimmie Johnson (3)
Dale Earnhardt Jr. (3)
Kevin Harvick (2)
Jeff Gordon (2)
Denny Hamlin (2)
Ryan Newman (1)
Matt Kenseth (1)
Mark Martin (1)
Kurt Busch (1)
Kasey Kahne (1)
Joe Nemechek (1)
Jeff Burton (1)
Clint Bowyer (1)

First time winners at Richmond

Kasey Kahne (2005 Chevy American Revolution 400)
Tony Stewart (1999 Exide NASCAR Select Batteries 400)

Short tracks (since 2009)

In some ways, Richmond behaves like a speedway, but when push comes to shove it is one of NASCAR's short tracks. Packing 43 cars into such a small space is a recipe for excitement and it takes a special breed of driver to excel on this type of track. Here is a comparison of how everyone has fared on the three shortest courses on the schedule.

DriverCombined Avg.Combined AttemptsRichmondBristolMartinsville
Denny Hamlin8.68226.0015.134.00
Kyle Busch9.18222.438.1317.14
Jimmie Johnson9.642215.008.136.00
Jeff Gordon11.412212.8613.387.71
Ryan Newman11.592210.8612.6311.14
Carl Edwards13.362210.4315.1314.29
Kevin Harvick14.412212.4318.3811.86
Dale Earnhardt Jr14.502221.5712.1310.14
Mark Martin14.631912.2919.3312.67
Matt Kenseth14.822217.1411.8815.86
Clint Bowyer15.182211.0018.7515.29
Kurt Busch15.552215.0012.5019.57
Jamie McMurray15.642216.5713.6317.00
Juan Pablo Montoya15.732214.0016.3816.71
Tony Stewart15.822211.0020.8814.86
Jeff Burton15.952216.2915.7515.86
Brad Keselowski16.061720.6713.6713.40
Greg Biffle18.232218.5715.7520.71
Marcos Ambrose18.362216.1416.5022.71
Joey Logano18.452217.5722.1315.14
Martin Truex Jr19.362224.5713.7520.57
Kasey Kahne20.862219.5717.2526.29
David Ragan21.952220.4324.1321.00
Paul Menard22.772227.8617.8823.29
David Reutimann23.242124.5722.1423.00
Casey Mears24.572221.7126.5025.33
Regan Smith25.171826.1724.7124.60
Bobby Labonte26.272227.8625.7525.29
Sam Hornish Jr26.381319.5031.4027.00
Reed Sorenson27.501327.7524.7530.00
Travis Kvapil28.611831.4024.7130.83
David Gilliland30.272231.2927.6332.29
Ken Schrader30.508-39.6723.25
Aric Almirola30.8010-35.0026.75
David Stremme31.411734.0028.3332.00
Landon Cassill32.251229.0033.0034.75
Stephen Leicht33.00329.50--
Scott Speed33.531835.6729.8034.50
Dave Blaney34.642231.8636.5035.29
Michael McDowell39.181741.3335.8039.83
Mike Bliss39.271239.4041.2535.00
Joe Nemechek40.732240.5741.2540.29
Josh Wise40.805-40.5042.50
JJ Yeley40.821243.3340.5039.25
Scott Riggs41.44944.3342.0036.00

Beaver's Best Bets for Richmond

Winner: Kyle Busch. The best way to secure his spot in the playoffs is to win and that is what Busch does best at Richmond.

Dark horse top 10: Mark Martin. In the fable of the Tortoise and the Hare, Martin would get cast as the turtle; his slow and steady approach to racing produces a lot of top 10s.

Don't bet on it: Martin Truex Jr. He will come close and keep his current top-15 streak alive, but Truex is going to narrowly miss earning his third Richmond top 10.

Beat Beaver -- Predicting the top 10

Richmond is all about balance. It straddles the fence between short tracks and speedways, but also rhythm and outright speed. This week's top 10 will feature a mixture of marquee drivers and sleepers.

1. Kyle Busch
2. Denny Hamlin
3. Jimmie Johnson
4. Kevin Harvick
5. Jeff Gordon
6. Clint Bowyer
7. Carl Edwards
8. Paul Menard
9. Mark Martin
10. Ryan Newman


Jimmie Johnson's accident and Carl Edwards' blown engine provided the biggest disappointments last week, but all in all it was not a bad performance for my top-10 picks. Jeff Gordon finished precisely in second while Kyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr. crossed under the checkers only one spot from where they were predicted to run.

For any driver correctly picked in the top 10, five points are awarded. For any driver picked in his exact finishing position, five bonus points are awarded. For correctly predicting the winner, a total of 20 points are awarded. So for a perfect top 10, a total of 110 points are available. One point is subtracted for each driver picked who finishes outside the top 10.

Predicted DriverActual FinishPoints
1.Jimmie Johnson34-1
2.Jeff Gordon210
3.Matt Kenseth95
4.Greg Biffle15-1
5.Kasey Kahne23-1
6.Carl Edwards36-1
7.Kyle Busch65
8.Dale Earnhardt Jr.75
9.Martin Truex Jr.45
10.Marcos Ambrose17-1

Total points for Richmond = 25 (out of a possible perfect score of 110)

Season best: 37 points (Charlotte, May); Season worst: 2 points (Daytona, July); Season avg.: 22.2 points (15 races)

For more stats and analysis, follow @FantasyRace on Twitter.


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